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Louisiana Democrat Governor Victory Disrupts Partisan Politics Tradition

Supporters of Louisiana Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards celebrate his win.
Debbie Elliott

State Rep. John Bel Edwards beat Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in Saturday's election, marking a change in the political landscape in the conservative South.

Edwards will be the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, where Republicans dominate politically.

You could almost have predicted the outcome of the race based on the candidates' election night parties. Sen. David Vitter was set up at a hotel near the airport, while John Bel Edwards lodged in the historic Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter.

The first hint of victory came when a brass band led a second line through the packed ballroom, revelers waving yellow campaign hankies in the air.

Democrats have a lot to celebrate in a state where they've been shut out of statewide elected office. The dynamic changed because of his supporters, Edwards says, "who were willing to believe that we could confound the conventional wisdom that this victory just couldn't happen."

Early on, Republican Sen. David Vitter was the presumed frontrunner. By last night, he was conceding defeat and preparing for an exit from the U.S. Senate.

"I'm only going to be doing that for one more year though this term," Vitter said. "I had decided when I decided to make this race with Wendy that I wanted to pursue new challenges outside the Senate no matter what. I'd reached my personal term limit."

Vitter was never able to shift focus away from his ties to a Washington D.C. prostitute in 2007. At the time, he confessed to a "serious sin," and then handily won re-election to the Senate in 2010.

But the governor's race was different. Edwards and his supporters attacked Vitter's character at every turn with harsh language, calling him a liar and a stain on Louisiana.

Vitter also had to overcome voters' frustration with the current Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is term-limited.

Louisiana's other Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy supported Vitter, but some other GOP officeholders backed Edwards. Cassidy says that hurt.

"Clearly Republicans were fractured and there was a multimillion dollar superPAC attacking David and for whatever reason, their attacks had a bite," he says.

State Rep. Kenny Havard is among those who broke GOP ranks to endorse Edwards. He says the election is a message that voters are fed up with ultra-partisan politics.

"We've got people on the fringe of each party, you know they rule the party," Havard said. "And probably 80 percent of us are stuck in the middle with nowhere to go. So I think the people of Louisiana spoke tonight and spoke with a loud voice."

Edwards, a veteran and West Point graduate stakes out some conservative turf — he's anti-abortion and pro-gun rights. But he also plans to expand Medicaid and push for a higher minimum wage, issues popular with Louisiana Democrats.

He promised last night to be a governor for "all the people." And with one final punch, he added, "I will never embarrass you."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South and occasionally guest-hosting NPR news programs. She covers the latest news and politics and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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